- Many cases that Lawyers For Liberty fought for were politically-inclined, whether in the stances they took, or the clients they represented.
- Now that Malaysia has a new steward, the NGO will be looking into whether manifesto promises are fulfilled.
- They will also continue to represent clients prosecuted under the previous government until and if those cases are overturned.
In Barisan Nasional’s last days at the helm, NGO Lawyers For Liberty (LFL) took a particular focus on civil liberties cases. Eric Paulsen, Executive Director of the organisation, considered those as “use of undemocratic laws like the Sedition Act and Peaceful Assembly Act to curb freedom of speech and assembly”. Two of the three founders spoke up regarding the controversial Anti-Fake News Act.
With Pakatan Harapan’s historic win, we had a new set of questions for LFL. First, since their political views often align with this new government, will they have a purpose now?
The answer: They are ready to be the promise-tracking body that will hold the government to their manifesto.
“The biggest challenge is how to make sure they follow through on their end,” said Eric.
With a new government, the LFL team is still figuring out what the NGO will look like in a new Malaysia.
“But I’m sure we will still be relevant as many the changes are not easy to accomplish and there are also other issues beyond what is in the manifesto.”
But, they’re also looking forward to a new Malaysia.
Update: The article has been amended to better reflect the sources of the images.
“It’s definitely a shift in a new direction,” said Eric. “Previously, we wouldn’t have been able to meet the government because they saw us as hostile.”
Before, they would often only be met with low-ranked representatives. Eric thinks it’s because the previous government was dismissive of the civil society.
He felt that the previous government only had limited engagements with civil society, and even then they only took on “safe” issues such as child or women’s rights.
“Or worse, they quietly engage with friendlier or unknown civil society representatives—and then claim that they have engaged with civil society when they push through unpopular measures or laws.”
The group needed to be creative before, and has often tested the law by trying to come up with innovative and progressive arguments to previous cases.
They count their lucky stars that they have senior counsels working with them pro-bono, including Gopal Sri Ram, Gurdial Singh Nijar and Ambiga Sreenevasan.
Now they’re able to engage the government more actively.
LFL is already in touch with the Committee for Institutional Reforms of the new government, (pictured in the feature image) and have even sent over their recommendations.
Fun Fact: The Committee for Institution Reforms is a Malaysian group of five legal minds appointed by the new Pakatan Harapan government to—as the tin says—reform some institutions. They have been collecting grievances by the public to map out their reforms.
The three key areas as highlighted by LFL for reform are the police, Attorney-General’s Chambers, and preventing deaths in all places of detention.
“Due to the decades of government interference in the judiciary, having a fair trial—although not unheard off—is more of the exception rather than the rule in politically-motivated cases. Certainly, the Attorney-General’s Chambers when prosecuting such cases, often act unfairly and selectively,” said Eric.
The hope is that the new government is more amenable to LFL’s advocation of major legislation and policy changes.
Their political fights aren’t quite over yet, though.
They’re also looking to overturn or shift quite a few existing structures.
They want MCMC to end what they call “politically-motivated website blocking” (like the previous blocks of Sarawak Report and Medium) and the targeting of anti-government social media comments.
“We expect all politically-motivated criminal charges to be dropped immediately, and for oppressive laws to be abolished—the Anti-Fake News Act 2018, Peaceful Assembly Act 2012, and Sedition Act 1948 all come to mind.”
“Outdated provisions in other laws like the Penal Code and Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 will need to be amended to bring them up to date and be consistent with international human rights standards.”
“Also, we hope to engage with the Minister of Health to revamp the post-mortem system which has been extremely controversial in custodial death cases,” said Eric.
This time though, Lawyers For Liberty is looking forward to actually working with members of the new government. For one thing, many of them were already involved with civil society movements like Gerakan Mansuhkan ISA (GMI), Bersih, and Gerakan Hapuskan Akta Hasutan (GHAH).
“We are hopeful their activist background and progressive views on human rights will be adopted. After all, some of them were victims of the draconian laws and oppressive state apparatus that we are hoping to reform.”
“But certainly, we will have to restrategise and reshape the way we work depending on how far they fulfill the manifesto,” said Eric.
It is clear that he has high expectations of the government reform though.
While that is ongoing though, Lawyers For Liberty will continue to represent their roster of clients, including the cartoonist Zunar, Bersih chairperson Maria Chin, former Barisan Nasional cybertrooper-turned-activist Syarul Ema, Hishamuddin Rais, youth activist Adam Adli, dance producer Bilqis Hijjas, and not to mention Eric’s own sedition case.
“As for civil cases, hopefully, the new Attorney-General will instruct his Chambers to stop challenging cases for the sake of challenging them, especially on statelessness and deaths in custody,” said Eric.<
“We want to see all these cases settled, but if things don’t change, we’ll keep fighting on.”
In the end though, Lawyers For Liberty is now taking a wait and see stance. They will be watching out on whether the government will hold on to their reform promises, and how far they actually manage to go.
“For as long as we see a niche that LFL needs to fill, we’ll be there to work on it, no matter who’s in government. Human rights will always be important, and we’ll play our part for as long as we can.”
Feature Image Credit: Lawyers For Liberty